Britain’s National Space Council: Putting the ‘bloody Union Jack’ on top of spacepower?

Dr. Bleddyn Bowen

This is a re-post from SpaceWatch.Global, a digital magazine and portal for those interested in space, where Dr. Bowen has a regular column.

At the recent UK Space Conference in Wales it was announced (again) that the UK Government will set up a National Space Council (NSpC), having first signalled that intent in June 2019. Details remain scant as to the nature and composition of the NSpC, and it remains to be seen when it will be set up given the Brexit-related political instability of the UK that monopolises the resources of civil servants and ministers.

The caricature that the British state has seen space activities as something the Americans could reliably provide and merely an ‘expensive jolly’ for the former Cold War superpowers is arguably changing. 2010 saw the foundation of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and a flurry of activity with successive policy and doctrinal publications, including the first National Space Policy (NSP) in 2015, as well as two editions of joint air and space doctrine and the National Space Security Policy (NSSP). These publications emerged on the back of decades of success in British industry and universities in commercial manufacturing, services, and scientific endeavours in space. Over 40,000 people now work directly in the UK space sector, which holds 5.1% of the world’s global space economy.

I am ambivalent as to the merits of an NSpC at this stage, as even poor bureaucratic organisation can work well if the right people are staffing it. The NSpC and the new National Space Framework may have good intentions but a lot of its success will depend on its personnel, final form, the overarching direction provided by the British leadership, the relationship with existing organs of the state, and the execution of its work. If and when a UK NSpC is formed, there are several considerations that must be taken into account.

1) Space is a place, not a policy issue

Space is an environment where many different kinds of actors conduct many different kinds of activities. Much to the surprise and chagrin of space scientists I have met over the years, space is more than just science and is largely defined by its history as a military- and intelligence- heavy arena. To the annoyance of many in the space industry I have met, profiteering in space is not that detached from the military and intelligence requirements and conditions of the major space powers. To the irritation of foreign policy hawks and ‘China Threat’ proponents, not all aspects of a state’s activities in space can be reduced to a zero-sum geopolitical competition whose even benign space science missions should be treated with fear and suspicion.

Since many different actors (from states to companies to universities) use space for many different purposes (military force enhancement, intelligence, critical state infrastructure, agriculture, commerce, and science) it is not unreasonable to ask whether all space activities could or should be directed, overseen, governed, or stimulated by a single body. There is no National Sea Council or a Sea Policy. There is no National Air Council or Air Policy.

Conceptually, the idea of a National Space Council and a Space Policy is uncomfortable given the reality that no single ministry or council can ever be responsible for everything that happens in a single environment. Space activities are normally divided into types of activities and actors, across ministries, levels of government, and actors. The NSpC will be at Cabinet level, but it is unclear how much influence and agency the Council will have both upwards towards the Cabinet and Premiership as well as downwards to the secretaries of state, the devolved governments, departments, and ministries.

2) Centralised planning and direction can create boundary issues

Which all leads to a practical problem of centralisation of UK space planning and oversight into a National Space Council. At this stage, it is unknown what role the NSpC will play. Will it only scrutinise activities of the ministries and industries that ‘do’ space? Will it only inform the Cabinet Office and provide advice? Will it also provide advice to individual ministries? Will it formulate policy? Will it direct the other organs of the state?

These fundamental questions raise boundary issues, most notably between the UKSA, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) much like the set up of a new French space command will realign the relationship between the French MoD and the French space agency, CNES. Other UK departments such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of International Development will also need to be managed in their space-related activities.

A major aspect that the NSpC may have to consider will be Britain’s approach to global astropolitical governance and space arms control at the UN. Space Traffic Management and international commercial space activities will increasingly need regulation in the years ahead and Britain cannot take favourable regulations for granted, especially outside of the EU. In addition, space arms control negotiations, though stalled, will never cease and Britain’s approach to the Conference on Disarmament and other relevant bodies at the UN on space issues need to be coordinated to its overall approach to military space activities.

A Prime Minister, secretary of state, and civil servants will have to take on this charge to reshape the way the British state ‘does space’. UKSA, MoD, BEIS, and the intelligence agencies are accustomed to particular ways of organising their space capabilities and programmes. Spending on space is disparate and is part of bureaucratic politics and competition over scarce resources, with UKSA’s budget at around £400m per year and mostly sent into ESA’s common pool of resources which is sent back to the UK in common projects. Meanwhile, the MoD spends billions on space on downstream applications, terminals, and the maintenance and modernisation of its Skynet system and increasing investments in small-satellite synthetic aperture radar systems. No state runs a single space budget because space activities cut across departments and functions, making centralised control based on an entire geography a daunting challenge.

However, it is fair to argue that some form of top-level space-centric strategic thought is needed in the British state given that above the MoD and UKSA, there is no dedicated Cabinet-level institutionalisation of thinking about the opportunities provided by cheaper space technologies that second-tier space powers can tap into. The NSpC could be a way to educate policymakers and civil servants about spacepower and overcome the usually neglected and misunderstood status of space technologies.

Much like computer network technologies (or cyber), space is often a subject of persistent ignorance and misconceptions outside of its niche practitioner and academic communities. Whilst the National Security Strategy (NSS) has air and maritime specialists and military services to feed into its commentary on Britain’s military airpower and seapower, there is no real intellectual or institutional equivalent for military and intelligence spacepower. The NSpC could be useful in channelling spacepower into future iterations of the NSS on its own terms.

The NSpC, if it was to be responsible for industrial and commercial space activities, could also play a visible and high-profile role in interfacing with the space industries and universities of the Devolved Authorities of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland in an effort to rebalance the economy away from London and the South-East of England.

3) Political signalling can be ambiguous

There is no doubt that setting up the NSpC will create further ‘buzz’ and positive media coverage that the British state is keen to deploy to attract investment. Yet a central body may contaminate civilian space commerce and science with military, intelligence, and security drivers. This is not necessarily a problem – a lot of space technology is dual-use and has military as well as non-military applications. Yet that does not mean a state’s security apparatus or mentality should drive free scientific inquiry of corporate profit-incentives in space. For all the talk of a commercial ‘second space age’, government investment and contracts in outer space still drive the bulk of profits in the global ‘private’ space sector.

Such signalling and organisation can be ambiguous and interpreted by other actors in an unintentional way. For all the criticism of China’s military-dominated institutional framework for its space sector, Britain cannot claim to have a space sector that is less oriented towards military or intelligence needs if it insists on directing space industry, commerce, and science further into the embrace of the military-industrial complex. This is not to say it is inherently wrong to do so, rather it us that hypocritical political optics can be conjured when condemning other states for the role of the military in their space activities.

4) The United States is not always an appropriate model to imitate

It may be more than a coincidence that the UK is seeking to set up an NSpC so soon after the re-establishment of the American National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and run by the Executive Secretary, Scott Pace. The string of Space Policy Directives emanating from their new council have mostly been concerned with commercial regulatory reform, the re-establishment up of a US Space Command, and the setting up of a new Space Development Agency and ‘Space Force’ (or, more accurately, an semi-independent Corps within the Air Force).

Is this a model the UK wishes to emulate? Unlike the USA, Britain does not have as large a space sector to govern and provide top-level direction and stimuli. Whilst it may make the job of a UK NSpC easier, it raises the issue of whether it is needed at all. In addition, UK space industry is simply not large enough to be able to enforce global standards of production and behaviour in the way the US National Space Council can with the cooperation of US space industry. Both the US and EU are far more influential than Britain ever can be on this matter.

This raises another issue: the US National Space Council can make decisions that affect the gargantuan US space sector which then creates global space industry standards. The UK meanwhile, will be taxed enough in trying to coordinate its niche space capabilities, paltry funding, and relatively small space sector in the context of the binary system of American and European spacepower. A British NSpC may be more concerned in balancing British interests between the partners it integrates with such as ESA, and cooperates with on a more ad hoc basis in science and industry such as America, Nigeria, and Australia.

Whether to coordinate domestic space activity or manage Britain’s power-political position in global astropolitics as spacepower proliferates horizontally and vertically across Earth, imitating the American remit in an NSpC may not be the best way to serve British interests in space. Deciding the remit, boundaries, and grand strategic objectives for Britain in space are crucial steps that will determine the success of the NSpC.

Major questions of British space strategy

A good case can be made for more strategic thought and education on military and industrial spacepower as Britain cannot afford to waste precious resources given its second-tier status in space. The transparent and public scrutiny of British space activities is sorely needed. A National Space Council can provide that scrutiny, and also educate practitioners and the wider public as to the realities of Britain’s position in space – it is highly integrated in the military and intelligence realm with the United States whilst commercially, industrially, and scientifically it is integrated with the European Space Agency and the European Union’s space industrial base.

There are opportunities for the British state and companies in space and they could be better communicated to the right audiences. But a difficult conversation must be had on what role the NSpC fills, and how it fits into the existing relationship in space policy making in the UK between UKSA, MoD, BEIS, and the Cabinet Office, and whether British science and commerce in space should be rationally directed along the same lines and security, intelligence, and military considerations in outer space. These considerations hopefully provides some constructive grounds for thinking on how an NSpC can help British spacepower balance itself between the two unavoidable space giants on its doorstep – America and Europe.

With that constructive attitude and the caveats above in mind, I pose a few questions for thinking about British objectives in space strategy and policy:

  1. Should Britain develop a more statist space programme or redouble its efforts in ESA to compensate for its departure from the EU and the possible emergence of an EU Space Agency?
  2. Which capabilities, and at what acceptable cost, should Britain develop on a sovereign basis?
  3. Should British space industry seek to depart from America’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regime, or seek greater integration with the American military-industrial-space complex?
  4. Which collaborative international space projects should Britain be a major participant of?
  5. Which major American military and intelligence space projects should Britain consider investing/purchasing a place in?
  6. Should space infrastructure (military and civilian) be publically funded, owned, and operated rather than via private aerospace companies?
  7. What are Britain’s preferred outcomes on Space Traffic Management and Space Arms Control?

Answers on a postcard, please!

 

Image – The sixth meeting of the US National Space Council, Chantilly, Va. August 20, 2019

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